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The Difference Between God and a Surgeon

How one father’s worst nightmare—a horrifying accident involving his child—was transformed by the skill of a brilliant doctor

(page 1 of 4)

Excerpted from Physical: An American Checkup, by James McManus, to be published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, January 2006. © 2006 by James McManus


Photograph: Jennifer Arra

Grace McManus, shown here in her metal eye shield, was given so many different drugs for her eye that her mother devised a sticker chart to keep it all straight.

Just before three in the afternoon on Friday the 13th of February, 2004, my wife, Jennifer, called to tell me that the right eye of Grace, our four-year-old daughter, had been punctured by a two-pronged wire sticking out from the end of a magic wand at a children’s birthday party. From my scalp to my bowels, I shuddered. At least one of my feet left the carpet, as though a prankster had tapped below my kneecap with a pink rubber mallet.

Calling from our car, Jennifer wavered between panic and her usual impatient efficiency. Gracie’s eye. Serious. Meet us at Lewy’s office. Think she’ll be OK, but . . . . 

The office of Peter Lewy, our daughters’ pediatrician, was only six blocks from the party, and Jennifer decided she could get Grace into a doctor’s care sooner at Lewy’s than if we risked whatever lines and red tape might be waiting at Evanston Hospital, three miles south of our house.

“But won’t the ER be able to handle-?”

“Just be ready!” she said, and hung up.

When the car arrived in our driveway a few minutes later, I climbed into the back and held Grace, who stayed buckled into her car seat. She’s a very tough cookie, as the youngest in the family often is, but now she was whimpering in pain, scrunched up as fetal as the seat belt would allow.

“Please let me look, Gracie girl. Daddy has to.”

When she finally let me for a couple of seconds, I tried to force myself not to cringe.

Didn’t work. From what I could tell, Grace’s right eye was shaped like an underinflated basketball someone had stepped on. Blood and some blue from her iris were leaking from two lacerations near the center of her cornea. It looked almost as dark as a shark’s eye. Hugging her, trembling, I turned to her mother. “How did this happen, for Christ’s sake?”

“They were playing with magic wands,” Jennifer told me. “One of the tips fell off. These wires were sticking out.”

At Dr. Lewy’s office, we were immediately taken into a darkened examining room. Jennifer laid Grace face-up on the table and began massaging her torso and arms, trying to keep her from touching the eye. I did the same from above Grace’s head, where I stayed when Dr. Lewy walked in. Grace was shivering, pawing her face, positively shrieking when we tried to tug her hand away so Lewy could examine her. His expressions and body language made it clear that though he wasn’t having much luck seeing what was wrong, the injury wasn’t minor. Unable to get drops into the eye, he fixed a soft cloth patch over it and had a nurse get on the phone to make arrangements for Grace to be seen by Deborah Fishman, a pediatric ophthalmologist in Wilmette, maybe three miles away. When? “Right now,” Lewy said, flooding us with relief and more terror.

We didn’t talk much in the car. If an appointment with a specialist had been secured this expeditiously late on a Friday afternoon, the condition of Grace’s eye must be dire. We did our best to make her less scared. Just one more doctor, OK? This one will make it all better. . . .

By the time Dr. Fishman determined that Grace’s injury “went too deep” for her to treat, we knew we were in a bad place. “The double laceration, combined with the depth of the punctures . . . .” Stop it! Please stop! Though we both did our best not to let Grace know how terrified we were, Fishman’s “too deep” remark multiplied our panic by an order of magnitude. Even Jennifer had started to lose it, and I knew that spelled doom, since she was the cool, rational half of the tag team. In the meantime, using her good eye, Grace had spotted a tin of what she called “lowly-pops” and asked Dr. Fishman if she please could have one.

“Oh, better not, sweetie,” Fishman told her gently. Turning to Jennifer, she whispered, “If she needs to have surgery, she should have an empty stomach.”

Fishman told us she would try to get Grace in to see Peter Rabiah, a surgeon who could treat this injury, though Fishman wasn’t sure it would be possible to reach him this late in the day. She called Children’s Memorial Hospital, cut through the paging madness to find out where Rabiah was, actually got the guy on the phone, and arranged for him to look at Grace’s eye. God knows how, but she did it.



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